Suing a School for Negligence: What You Need to Know

student injured at school - parents suing for negligence

A negligence-based lawsuit against a school can have unique complications, depending on the type of institution it is.

Overall, teachers, school administrators, and other staff have a “duty of care,” meaning they must take reasonable steps to avoid and prevent circumstances likely to cause personal injury to a student.

Some reasons you might want to proceed with suing a school for negligence include:

  • Injuries caused by another student’s bullying.
  • Failure to act in an emergency.
  • Lack of student supervision in potentially hazardous areas.
  • School bus accidents and disregard for nearby traffic.
  • Failure to maintain health/sanitation standards, especially in food preparation.
  • Failure to repair unsafe structures or equipment.
  • Permitting strangers on school grounds.

But before you get started, you should begin by understanding the legal differences between public and private schools as defined in the California Torts Claims Act.

Suing a Public School

Public schools are government entities, and as such are protected from lawsuits and liability for damages. That doesn’t mean that they absolutely cannot be sued, but that a very specific procedure must be followed. It’s very unusual for a case against a school to be tried and won.

If your child was seriously injured at school due to someone’s negligence, you must start the legal process by filing an administrative claim within six months of the incident.

Tip: file even if you’re not positive you’ll want to pursue further action, since requests to file late are rarely accepted.

Many school districts, especially in urban areas, are considered government agencies independent of city or state. Check your school district’s website for a downloadable form, often found in a section labelled Risk Management. Here are links to information pages of some local  school districts:

Filing an administrative claim gives a school the chance to investigate the situation and make changes in their policy, if necessary. The school district must reply to claim within 45 days. You can generally expect one of two responses: rejection of claim (most likely) or offer of a settlement. If you don’t receive an answer within 45 days, the claim is considered rejected by default.

At that point, if you still wish to move forward with filing a lawsuit, you may do so. I strongly advise speaking with a personal injury attorney to get a free case evaluation before you proceed.

Suing a Private School

The procedure for suing a private school for negligence is the same as filing a lawsuit against any business in the state of California.

Private schools are typically corporate entities, whether nonprofit or for-profit. Rather than being governed by federal and state statutes like public schools are, relationships with private schools are based on contract.

Private school staff still have a “duty of care” and that should be reflected in the student handbook, promotional literature, and other written documents. These documents are considered contractual and will be studied thoroughly by your attorney before deciding on the validity of your case.

An experienced attorney may advise you to consider options other than a lawsuit, such as issuing a demand letter. When you are seeking compensation for medical expenses, a demand letter can often lead to a settlement much faster than a court procedure.

Suing a College

The same rules apply, in that public universities are government entities with protection and strict procedures, while private colleges are typically corporations. However, a recent California Supreme Court ruling established that “universities have a special relationship with their students and a duty to protect them from foreseeable violence during curricular activities.”

This ruling applies to all postsecondary institutions in the state. It came as a result of an incident that took place on the UCLA campus in which one student was stabbed by another who had been diagnosed with mental illness. The victim’s initial negligence case against UCLA was rejected in appeals court, but since the Supreme Court agreed unanimously agreed to overturn that ruling, she can now seek justice for the life-threatening wounds she suffered.

 When You Should Talk to a Negligence Lawyer

As I parent, I understand how stressful it would be to have a child sustain a serious injury at school. We rely on school staff almost every day protect our kids and take it for granted that they will come home safe. If you are uncertain whether or not you have legitimate grounds for suing a school for negligence, contact me for a free case evaluation.

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